The Morvan region (wmorvan.com) lies in the middle of Burgundy between the valleys of the Loire and the Saône, stretching roughly from Clamecy, Vézelay and Avallon in the north to Autun in the south. It’s a land of wooded hills and, with poor soil and pastures only good for a few cattle, villages and farms are few and far between. In the nineteenth century, supplying firewood and charcoal to Paris was the main business and large tracts of hillside are still covered in coniferous plantations. Wet nursing was also an important part of the economy, with local peasant women leaving their homes and families to feed the children of the French aristocracy and Parisian bourgeoisie, a practice that continued well into the twentieth century.
The World War II Occupation was felt profoundly in the Morvan, firstly because it was stripped of its machinery, equipment and forestry products; and secondly because it became a centre for the Resistance. As a result the locals suffered terribly from reprisals and forced labour programmes.
Carpeted with forest and etched by cascading streams, the Parc Régional du Morvan was officially created in 1970, when 170,000 hectares of hilly countryside were set aside in an attempt to protect the local cultural and physical environment with a series of nature trails, animal reserves, museums and local craft shops. It’s an excellent place for outdoor activities, especially cycling and walking, with a good network of simple accommodation.
The creation of the parc régional did something to promote the area as a place for outdoor activities, but it was the election of François Mitterrand, local politician and former mayor of Château-Chinon, as president of the Republic that rescued the Morvan from oblivion. In addition to lending it some of the glamour of his office, he took concrete steps to beef up the local economy. West of the Morvan, the landscape softens as it descends towards the River Loire and the fine medieval town of Nevers, on Burgundy’s western border.Read More
The tourist buses winding their way up the steep incline to Vézelay should not deter you from visiting this attractive hilltop hamlet, surrounded by ramparts and with some of the most picturesque, winding streets and crumbling buildings in Burgundy. While the main draw is undeniably the Basilica of Ste-Mary La Madeleine, Vézelay is also a popular destination for art-lovers, with many small galleries and antique shops on rue St-Pierre, and an impressive art collection in the Musée Zervos.
Pilgrims journey to Vézelay to venerate the relics of Mary Magdalene (1120), housed in one of the seminal buildings of the Romanesque period, the Basilica of Ste-Mary La Madeleine, one of the first UNESCO-inscribed sites in France. On the church’s west front the colossal narthex was added to the nave in 1140 to accommodate the swelling numbers of pilgrims. Inside, your eye is drawn to the sculptures of the central doorway, on whose tympanum a Pentecostal Christ is shown swathed in exquisitely figured drapery. From Christ’s outstretched hands, the message of the Gospel shoots out to the apostles in the form of beams of fire, while the frieze below depicts the converted and the pagans – among those featured are giants, pygmies (one mounting his horse with a ladder), a man with breasts and huge ears, and dog-headed heathens. The arcades and arches are edged with fretted mouldings, and the supporting pillars are crowned with finely cut capitals, depicting scenes from the Bible, classical mythology, allegories and morality stories. The orientation of the church is such that, during the summer solstice, the sun coming through the south windows creates a line of nine luminous spots bisecting the nave floor.
With its Gothic spire rising against the backdrop of the Morvan hills, Autun is scarcely bigger than the circumference of its walls; most of the enclosure still consists of Roman fortifications that have been maintained through the centuries. The emperor Augustus founded the town in about 10 BC as part of a massive and, ultimately, highly successful campaign to pacify the brooding Celts of defeated Vercingétorix. The splendour of Augustodunum, as it was called, was designed to eclipse the memory of Bibracte, the neighbouring capital of the powerful tribe of the Aedui. Autun did indeed become one of the leading cities of Roman Gaul until it was sacked by the Arabs in 725 AD. Today, it is a picturesque provincial town, and an excellent base for exploring the surrounding countryside, particularly the Parc du Morvan.
This town’s past remains very tangible, and two of its four Roman gates survive: Porte St-André, spanning rue de la Croix-Blanche in the northeast, and Porte d’Arroux in the northwest. In a field just across the River Arroux stands a lofty section of wall known as the Temple of Janus, which was probably part of the sanctuary of an unknown deity. On the east side of town, on avenue du 2ème Dragons, you can see the remains of what was the largest Roman theatre in Gaul, with a capacity of fifteen thousand – in itself a measure of Autun’s importance at that time. The most enigmatic of the Gallo-Roman remains in the region is the Pierre de Couhard, off Faubourg St-Pancrace to the southeast of the town. It’s a 27m-tall stone pyramid situated on the site of one of the city’s necropolises, thought to date from the first century, and most probably a cenotaph.